By Sharonica Moore

During the reconstruction era the views on gender roles and families were in the middle of a great change. Before the civil war women were viewed as asset of their men. Whether it was a slave owner or their husband’s women were viewed as just an extension of men. Activists such as W.E.B Du Bois often described women as, “They were not beings; they were relations and these relations were enfilmed with mystery and secrecy” (Dubois). Many activist, abolitionist, and writers agreed that being a mother was a vital job for women, but for years that mentality and assumption repressed women. Women were beginning to no longer just be seen in connection to men and family, but were viable figures in society. Women were becoming more involved in social reform movements from radical justice to women’s suffrage, and were changing the ideaology of gender roles.

The United States tried to prepare for unfamiliar change as they embarked on reconstruction. The newly emancipated African-Americans gained a voice in government for the first time in American history; though it was small it was a start. African-Americans were fighting for equality and rights that they inherently deserved. Although the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments had been passed blacks were still discriminated against. As the world turned with social and political changes, new cultural expression began to emerge. African-Americans had always found a way to express themselves, even during slavery. They did this to preserve the culture of their ancestry and articulate both their struggles and hopes in their own words and images. During the Reconstruction era several black artists and writers, particularly females, surfaced. The literature of the Reconstruction era introduced creative writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson. The era also presented amazing inspirational literature for African-Americans like Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, Anna Julia Cooper’s Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, and of course W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The reconstruction was a great era for political, social, and creative change, reform, and expression.

“After playing a significant role in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement of the 1960s, the rich body of creative work produced by black women found wider audiences” (Black History in America). Women like Harriet Wilson whom just wanted to make money off of her novel Our Nig found great prominence with her controversial autobiography. Although women didn’t have all the same rights as men they began to speak out, and let their voices be heard. They used art work, literature and music to seize attention on their movement and issues. Throughout the reconstruction era women were still being treated unfairly and crudely. They were still forced to do house work jobs including: cooking, cleaning, sewing, and maintaining homes. Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson, like many other women, wrote of her struggles and despair. In her poem I Sit and Sew, Alice intertwines the tragedy of war with her own calamity because she is seen as just a woman and only able to sew. Many women of this era felt exactly as Alice Nelson, which helped motivate writers, artists, and movements. Some of the literatures that really pushed women and opened the eyes of readers were the autobiographies, and essays. These pieces were more than just motivation they were incentive and a force for movement. In Anna Julia Cooper’s Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, she not only speaks of the struggles of women. Cooper wrote of the realities of all women not just black women. The writing unites all women from every culture who is mistreated. Whether it’s the politics of Chinese culture or the exclusion of women from religious literature, women mended together during the Reconstruction. Using their creative talents the once oppressed women banded together to change their futures.

While the women of the Reconstruction era were creating a new movement, creative men were writing to continue progress of the country. Famed abolitionist W.E.B Du Bois is one of the most notable writers of the literary Reconstruction era. The critic, author, scholar, and civil rights leader wrote of the necessary steps to progressing African-Americans in society. Souls of Black Folk is Du Bois’ foremost pieces of literature. At a time when emancipation wasn’t enough, and slavery transformed from physical to mental, economically, and socially Du Bois wrote of new movements. In the novel the activist urged education of blacks, manhood suffrage, equal economic and educational opportunities, and an end to segregation and full civil rights. Within the novel W.E.B Du Bois even confronts Booker T. Washington for not doing more to support the civil rights movement. While the post-war reconstruction era was still a time of progression African-Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. Black writers strongly encouraged the independence and advance of blacks in their works. Shortly after progression began Jim Crow laws were implemented spurring more reactions from activists, writers, and artists. Paul Laurence Dunbar is another writer who wrote to represent African-Americans in a suitable manner. Dunbar faced the challenge of writing in dialect, but still representing that aspect of black culture properly. African Americans continued to contributed literature, art, agricultural skills, foods, clothing styles, music, language, social and technological innovation to American culture, as times continued to change.

The African-American family remained a valued characteristic in the lives of blacks. “Social reformers considered it their project to lift uncivilized people up from a natural savage state and mold them into proper citizens. Institutions such as slavery and marriage provided these reformers with a domesticating technology or lever that could pry the uncivilized apart from their savage ways” (Black History in America). When African-Americans were enslaved social rules inhibited them from legally being married. They were thought of as being to savage and lacking the morals that are necessary to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Because slaves were not allowed to be married many African-American traditions were born including jumping the broom. Familial bonds were strong and important to blacks even after slavery. Families that were separated during slavery were now able to be together and many African-Americans even rushed to get married when they became freedmen. The creative work of blacks showed the surge in relationships, and the advancement of families.

After emancipation it was important for African-Americans to identify with the new expressions of blackness. Whether this expression came through literature, art, dance, or social reforming blacks began to identify themselves under their own terms. Authors pushed and supported black movements and the individuality and defining of blacks. The “New Negro Movement” defined a new era for African-Americans everywhere that sought equality and self-identification as a person. This was a time for great beginnings and a surge in the black arts. This burgeoning of literary and intellectual arts molded a new identity for African-American culture. “The movement raised significant issues affecting the lives of African Americans through various forms of literature, art, music, drama, painting, sculpture, movies, and protests” (Black History in America).